As Holy Week nears, the central theme of the liturgy today is captured by the second reading: "God who is rich in mercy, because of his great love for us brought us to life in Christ." The first reading is the conclusion of the Chronicler’s history, written around 400 B.C., almost 200 years after the Babylonian exile. It presents in capsule form the "sin history" which led to exile, an experience poignantly remembered in the responsorial psalm. Yet God’s final word is not indictment of sin, but the gift of liberation and return to the land of promise.
The central assertion of the Gospel, "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but might have eternal life," is one of the most cited New Testament texts, paraded at sporting events and on bumper stickers. It concludes a staged and dramatic dialogue between Nicodemus and Jesus. Nicodemus comes at night and praises Jesus, but Jesus says that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above (anothen). Since this Greek term can also mean "again," Nicodemus is describedusing the familiar Johannine technique of misunderstanding that leads to deeper insight as taking this to mean natural birth, to which Jesus responds that he is talking about being born of water and the Spirit. This is most likely an allusion to baptism. The frequent invocation of "born again" to refer to an adult renewal of faith and conversion by an already baptized Christian has no foundation in John. John is speaking of first baptism, which Jesus understands as "from above," that is from God’s gratuitous act of love.
Jesus’ statement then leads into the enigmatic comparison of the lifting up (crucifixion) of the Son of Man to Moses’ mounting of the serpent on a pole (Num. 21:9) after the people were bitten by serpents as punishment for their rebellion against Moses. The comparison in John is not between Jesus and the serpent, but between the saving effect of the lifting up in both cases. The section from today’s Gospel then expands on the gift of eternal life that flows from belief in the exalted Son of Man.
In announcing God’s love for the world John’s vision embraces the whole cosmos, not simply an elect people, so that "everyone" who believes may be saved. God’s love is more dominant in the Johannine writings than anywhere else in the New Testament. God is love (1 Jn. 4:8); love is the mutual relationship between Jesus and the Father (Jn. 15:9-10; 17:23); Jesus loves his disciples and says that their love of service and friendship is to be a hallmark of discipleship (Jn. 13:34-35; 15:12-14). The paschal season is the public affirmation and renewal of such love.
The concluding verses present the shadow side of Johannine theology: Whoever does not believe in Jesus has already been condemned, because they loved darkness more than light. They embody John’s "realized eschatology" in which judgment occurs during the ministry of Jesus rather than at the end of history (cf. Mt. 25:31-46, "Sheep and Goats"). They also reflect controversies in John’s community over explicit belief in the divinity of Jesus. When interpreted in a fundamentalist sense, these comments lead to a sectarian theology of salvation and an incorrect understanding of mission and evangelization.
The readings provide ample material for preaching and reflection as Lent draws to a close. Simply put, they embody Paul’s statement, "where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more" (Rom. 5:20). As a time of reconciliation, Lent and Easter remind us that no human evil is beyond the pale of God’s love and that forgiveness is a gift; as a time of renewal, that we are "God’s handiwork created in Christ Jesus for good works."